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Indian Plum

Flowering Indian Plum

I would be remiss in my duties as a nature blogger if I did not post a photo of Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) in bloom.

As I mentioned last year, this plant is an early bloomer and signifies the coming of spring. When Indian Plum buds burst into bright green leaves, Pacific Northwesterners can rejoice because sunlight and warmth are on their way back to the region.

The early production of leaves in Indian Plum may be an adaptation that allows this species to capture a bunch of energy from the Sun before the larger trees (e.g. Bigleaf Maple) unfurl their own foliage, which then blocks much of the sunlight from reaching the smaller understory plants.

This plant grows as a small tree or shrub in low elevation forests, in dry to moist conditions. It is a common species in the forested nature parks of Portland, Seattle, and other urban areas.

Indian Plum ranges from British Columbia to Northern California.

The leaves of Indian Plum are lance-shaped, 2-5 in (5-12 cm) long, and smell like cucumbers when crushed.

The white flowers open in February or March. They hang down in clusters (i.e. racemes). Each flower is bell-shaped, has five petals, and is about 0.5 in (1 cm) wide. The flowers’ fragrance is something like cat urine. Sniff with caution.

Small, plum-like berries form later in the season. These are bitter, but edible. Native peoples harvested Indian Plum fruits and ate them raw, cooked, or dried. It is difficult for humans to get a taste of fully-ripe Indian Plum berries because birds and mammals generally pick the bushes clean.

This plant is in fact related to cherries and plums (both in the genus Prunus), being in the plum subfamily of Rosaceae, the rose family.


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8 comments… add one

  • jf March 20, 2012, 8:36 PM

    Ah, nice, osoberry’s one of my favorite harbingers of spring! Didn’t know about the smells, I’ll have to check that out. We’ve got a couple but no fruit–both ended up being males. Even odds but the nursery didn’t specify. One didn’t even know it was dioecious.

  • jill i March 27, 2012, 2:14 PM

    Ha, should have seen this post before I did my March 17 blog post – I have a close-up shot of Indian plum but didn’t name it because I didn’t know what it was! But it was ubiquitous in the forested park near my home in north Seattle that I blog about a lot. Thanks!

    • Ivan Phillipsen April 4, 2012, 3:32 PM

      Hi, Jill. Yes, this plant is really common and that becomes apparent once you know what to look for.

  • k kaptein April 5, 2012, 9:11 AM

    Up here on Vancouver Island, ours are a few weeks behind – just noticed them blooming last week! http://naturestudent.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/early-flowers-at-the-airpark

  • Christy Peterson April 13, 2012, 1:43 PM

    Thanks Ivan! I’m always photographing this shrub because I’m so thrilled to see the early flowers, but I never knew what it was. :)

  • Bob Wasmer June 3, 2012, 8:49 AM

    How late into the fall do the fruits stay on? I am a wildlife artist carving realistic birds. One of the birds I am currently working on is a Bohemian Waxwing. This carving is for a category called Best In The Northwest in an upcoming show; the Bohemian Waxwing is the specified bird this year. I am wanting to do the bird, (a fairly rare winter visitor here in the NW),, on a native fruited branch. I am hoping to do it without a lot of leaves. The adjacent wetland buffer zone here at my house has several Indian Plum bushes putting on fruit now, so I thought I’d try to make a branch of this with fruit on which to put the bird. Assuming, of course, that the Bohemian Waxwings would even eat the plums. Can you give me any help on this? Thanks!

    • Ivan Phillipsen June 6, 2012, 11:20 AM

      Hi, Bob. Thanks for the question.

      I’m not exactly sure how late in the fall that the fruit remains on Indian Plum. I have heard that as the fruits ripen, they are quickly picked off by birds and other animals. I intend to look for Indian Plum fruits in the late summer and monitor their progress. So I should know a little more about this next year.

      Another native berry that waxwings might eat is Snowberry. The white fruits of that shrub definitely persist into winter.

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